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View-Master 3-D travel reels head into the sunset

Mary Ann Sell loads a View-Master photo reel into a viewer from her collection at her Maineville, Ohio, home.

Mary Ann Sell loads a View-Master photo reel into a viewer from her collection at her Maineville, Ohio, home.

March 7, 2009

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— Amber LaPointe’s introduction to one of the country’s greatest tourist attractions came from small square pictures on a white wheel.

“It was like you could look into a world away,” said the 28-year-old from Toledo, Ohio. “My only image of the Grand Canyon was from the View-Master.”

The iconic reels of tourist attractions, often packaged with a clunky plastic viewer and first sold to promote 3-D photography, are ending their 70-year run after years of diminishing sales.

Collectors like Mary Ann Sell of Maineville, Ohio, are dismayed.

“The whole summer I was 5 years old, before I went to school, I traveled the world via View-Master. It was great, and now kids won’t have the opportunity to do that,” said Sell, 57, who owns upward of 25,000 scenic reels.

Scenic discs are no longer a good fit for the Fisher-Price division of toy maker Mattel Inc., a spokeswoman said, and the company stopped making them in December. Fisher-Price, based in East Aurora, N.Y., will keep making better-selling reels of Shrek, Dora the Explorer and other animated characters, spokeswoman Juliette Reashor said in an e-mail to The Associated Press.

Peering at images shot from the top of the CN Tower in Toronto or the rim of the Grand Canyon could induce vertigo, they were so vivid. Elvis Presley’s “jungle room” at Graceland is on a reel, and Mary Tyler Moore used the toy to check out vacation spots on her eponymous TV show.

Mark Finley, general manager of View-Master scenic reels distributor Finley-Holiday Films, insisted the souvenirs — which inventor William Gruber debuted with backing from a postcard company in 1939 — still can appeal to children.

But Clinton Brown of Columbus, who will turn 4 today, gave the View-Master that his mother, Karina, bought him a clear thumbs down.

“It’s boring,” he said, his mother’s fond childhood memories notwithstanding.

Toy industry analyst Sean McGowan with Needham & Co. said View-Master has been in decline since its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.

“That’s not what the kids are looking for in the back seat of the car,” he said. “They’re looking for a DVD that plays on the back of Daddy’s seat.”

Based on its limited shelf space in stores, McGowan estimated View-Master brings in less than $10 million a year, compared with overall revenue of $5.92 billion for El Segundo, Calif.-based Mattel in 2008. Finley said the shops at Yellowstone National Park typically sell 8,000 View-Master sets each year for up to about $13 each.

McGowan found the scenic discs’ cancellation sad but not surprising.

“When I was a kid, everybody I knew had a View-Master, so you could sell (the reels) everywhere,” said McGowan, 48. “Hardly anybody has it anymore.”

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